” You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” – Maximilian Robespierre
” Onagracy – government by braying asses.” – Benedetto Croce
America is in a crisis. There is a fierce battle for control of historical memory as waves of anguish soak the nation’s tormented soul. There is fear that the vision of creating a more perfect union has been obliterated. There is fear that the hallowed notion of citizen-centered democracy has been served its obituary notice. The pursuit of happiness has been slain at the altar of leviathan capitalism. Is there a basis for such fear? Is the country careening headlong toward totalitarianism? Has the politics of personality and profit prevailed over the preferences of the polity?
To examine those questions, it is illuminating to address the fundamental issue: What are the signposts of a totalitarian state? We begin by turning to the French Revolution which nurtured the first seeds of modern totalitarianism. One of its architects, Robespierre bequeathed the omelette analogy. The old had to be broken to usher in the new. Under his short and convulsive tenure, the state became the arbiter of virtue. A guillotine blade decapitating a head gave clarity to the risks of being contaminated by moral and political pollution. In our modern era, breaking eggs and attaining virtue might consist of dismantling a health care system without having an adequate replacement; or worse, eliminating long-standing social safety nets that act as a brace against total impoverishment or succumbing to debilitating pathologies. The contemporary Robespierre imitators might even attempt to eviscerate a public education system that at the least, offers a glimmer of hope and a vehicle for improving one’s standing. Now I am not implying that in establishing its new republic of hawkish market-driven theology, the U.S. would ever resort to such measures. Even with deregulatory enthusiasm all the rage and the captains of corporate culture wresting control from the citizenry, more ingredients need to be added to make the omelette tantalizing and potentially toxic.
To cross that divide into totalitarianism, the unwashed horde needs shaping and direction. Napoleon scooped up Robespierre’s fumble to help create the totalitarian template with censorship, propaganda, and secret police. He controlled the medium and the message. Whether it was the hedonistic French munching their cheese, sipping their wine and contracting venereal disease while allowing overlords to do their thinking for them, or Americans digesting the latest Fox News indoctrination, true believers need a charge to reach peak fanatic heat. The state must dictate the talking points and the history. Compliant media acts as the mouthpiece. Plugging in some “alternative facts” is an effective tactic. Altering or destroying history has always served such regimes well. Libraries are sanitized and the press is cowered into submission as they pledge fealty to the party line. As historian William McCray once observed: ” Historical consciousness is to society, what memory is to an individual. A society without it, is subject to barbarism and tyranny.”
One can cede the field to distortion or deception. One must choose wisely. There are plenty of warped assertions to select from in the history and science boxes. For those of a racist tint, asserting that slavery was actually a benign system is a good seller. Conspiracy peddlers can convince the science-challenged segment that global warming is a hoax as is that pesky theory of evolution. Empirical proof is a liberal concoction, it has been that way since the first bacteria found a home in perverted Uncle Lester’s capacious colon: prayer is in, the pharmacist is out. And to make the fabrication cycle complete, throw a bone to the paranoid types. Really feed their delusions by pushing the credulity and hysteria buttons by manufacturing stories about “massacres.” Carting out antagonistic aliens to despise is a surefire method to keep folks mentally and physically battle-ready to thwart subversive elements. Take your pick from the litter, there have always been communists, terrorists, impure sexual types, and deviant illegal immigrants to fill the need. In a pinch you can settle for domestic evildoers. Depending on the era and the country, Catholics, Jews, and Masons were behind every intrigue and calamity. And as a default, you can always blame the New England Patriots.
Still, the transformation needs an identifiable leader. It is not always the case but most of the time, totalitarian or if you prefer – authoritarian states, are associated with a personality cult. Now before I go any farther, I should render a disclaimer, I am not comparing Donald Trump to Joseph Stalin. Indeed it pains me to the deepest wellsprings of my being to mention them in the same sentence. Stalin was narcissistic and keenly sensitive to what he perceived as the slightest insult. He would resort to any measure to demolish opposition. Uncle Joe didn’t even have a Twitter account though he was snidely tagged as ” Genghis Khan with a telephone.” His presence was ubiquitous: posters, photos, statues, speeches. He had an obsessive need for adulation. Simon S. Montefiore described the mania as having an almost spiritual dimension: ” Bolshevism and Stalinism was not a religion, but it was close enough.” A good helping of religious fervor is a plus in getting the people to march and think in lockstep.
But there are still other pieces to assemble before one can make the transition to a true totalitarian state. The revolutionary rabble must think there is something in it for them. Mussolini assured the dispirited commoners that he would restore Italian ” glory”; it was that old ” Make Italy great again” teaser. Throw in a balcony, some bombast and a jutting chin, and you could get those daring Italians to vacate the opera house or toss out the pasta and go dashing off to Ethiopia. Although Americans have been coveting the conquest of Canada and Mexico since the invention of hockey and Acapulco Gold, they might not be quite as easy to persuade. You can imagine the patriots grumbling when Trump makes the call for action and they have to ditch the tacos and slam down the remotes right in the middle of ” Naked and Afraid in an Arkansas Trailer Park” or ” The Kardashians Do Los Angeles.” To be fair, it is true there are some mutations in the conservative stew that have reservations about foreign adventurism. I would have said ethical concerns, but one cannot take too many liberties with phrasing and juxtapose ethics and conservatives.
Discarding any notions of ethics, we move to another historical arena. Sometimes grasping the Holy Grail of government control requires a more nimble approach. Hitler and the Nazis used the ballot box to destroy democracy. And they couldn’t have wrecked the republic without the help of ordinary people, even conventionally good people. There was the right blend of the traditional elite, conservative forces, and German Christians who bought into the pseudo-history and pseudo-science platform. Nor can you omit the females. The Nazis needed to harness the women if the utopian Reich was to make its stamp on history. Women who knew their place. (Damn, that sounds almost like a Fundamentalist Christian convention.) Anyway, benefits were to be had if females consented to the subjugation, there were attractive tax cuts available if they ably performed the imperative breeding duties. It was the clever ” Bonus for Babies” prescription, and if all went well, junior would soon be girding up his Aryan loins, out waving a Swastika and chanting the ordained drivel. Americans, being a more righteous brood, draw from scripture to achieve the same effect: ” Be fruitful and multiply.” Or in the common vernacular, ” Keep them barefoot and in the kitchen.” Why even Chairman Mao, no novice when it came to the dictatorship business, also served as an authority on childbirth. According to the plump demigod, ” Pregnancy and having babies is easy.” So there you have it, to make the dictatorship complete, women had to hop aboard the totalitarian train and copulate and propagate.
There was plenty of excitement in the Fatherland as the reproduction machinery was getting oiled and lubricated. Hannah Arendt, an author who penned provocative prose on totalitarian states contended that such societies needed ” constant motion” (and commotion). She wasn’t referring to motion and coital acrobatics in the sanctuary of the rollicking Reich bedrooms, she meant the rallies and marches, and of course those intoxicating book burning spectacles. Until Hitler plunged the Germans into war, nationwide there were sometimes as many as 3,000 meetings and marches a day. It gave the tribe cohesion and a sense of purpose. It must stressed again that Hitler and the Nazis assumed power legally. And two weeks after they did so, Thomas Mann lamented: ” The common scum have taken power, accompanied by the rejoicing of the masses.”
A sweep through the historical register should be cause for foreboding. The rejoicing of those masses is often short-lived. As the phrasing goes, ” The revolution devours its own children.” Historian Gabriel Liulevicius warns that ” It is dangerous to be unaware of the historical record and sinister ideologies.” America is in a state of crisis. It is consumed by hyper-nationalism and a fetish for a mythical pure free-market ideology. An ideology that cloaks the more malignant streaks of its ardor by pinning its idiom to long-deceased Puritans and Founding Fathers. Such is the argot: ” America is a Christian Nation.” Meaning, let’s play theocracy. Or it is manifest in such disturbing cult bands like the Tea Party, an upgrade on the John Birch Society with right-wing media and the NRA as its benefactors. With all the purported reverence for those Founding Fathers, perhaps the most eloquent of that intellectual elite should be heeded. To quote Thomas Jefferson: ” There will be major battles between rapacious capitalism and democracy.” The battles never cease and the crisis does not lessen, and as Dante said: ” The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”